Discover the longlist: Violaine Huisman, ‘My parents were astounding storytellers’

Longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Violaine Huisman is the author of The Book of Mother.

She discusses how she channelled her real-life experiences with her own mother into her work and the books that allowed her to question feminine identity.

What first inspired you to write The Book of Mother?  

As its title evokes, the novel is about a mother, or rather, my real-life mother. As her child, I struggled to make sense of her mental illness, her violence, and her feral love, too. As a writer, I wanted to recompose the complex and fluctuating feelings I continued to hold in memory. Through fiction, I wanted to restore my mother’s place in a world where she felt perpetually out of place. I had wanted to write a book about my mother for as long as I could remember, but it was only when I became a mother myself that I was able to, or understood how. 

The role of mother in society is meant to provide limitless unconditional love and care to others, even when the conditions for doing so make it impossible – be they for psychological or political reasons. ‘Mothers always fail,’ Jacqueline Rose has wisely pointed out. But their failure should be taken as a given when mothers are held to inadequately high or unattainable standards. 

I found in literature a way to explore the complexity of these questions from two angles: as a child, and as a mother myself. I wanted to re-present my mother as I viewed her through our filial bond, and as I could see her now that I’m an adult.

What’s your earliest reading memory?

I have no vivid early childhood reading memories. My parents also never read to me, but both my mother and father were astounding storytellers. My mother made up bedtime stories for my sister and me, elaborate narratives which could last for days. But mostly my parents had an extraordinary talent for soliloquy. They rarely needed cues to keep going, they could simply monologue for hours. And strangely my earliest reading memory has to do with that voice – their voice. I remember discovering reading, or books, as a place where one could encounter such a voice that tells a story, unprompted. 

What authors have made the biggest impact on your work?

My novel’s title in French [Fugitive parce que reine] is borrowed from a line by Marcel Proust. Proust’s approach to the novel as a way of describing the mysteries of mind and vagaries of the heart, as a way of trying to encapsulate time, has been of tremendous help. 

I read Marguerite Duras in my late teens, and her raw, bare sentences—the opposite of Proust’s ornate style—filled me with a sense of possibility. She was a writer who made me want to write, and made me feel that perhaps I could. 

In more recent years, the American novelist and poet Ben Lerner has made a very powerful impact on my work. His definition of fiction as a form through which to organise reality has served as an important example of what I hope to accomplish. I feel at home in his novels, in a way that helps me figure out how to compose mine.

Violaine Huisman

I had wanted to write a book about my mother for as long as I could remember, but it was only when I became a mother myself that I was able to, or understood how

Tell us about a book that changed your life.

When I was in my teens, I read a biography of French sculptor Camille Claudel. Claudel was famous for having been Auguste Rodin’s lover, for being mentally, and having died in a psychiatric asylum during the Second World War. My mother strongly identified with her. I must have encountered the book on accident at our local independent bookstore. I don’t remember anyone recommending it – and it wasn’t exactly teen material. (I reread it recently: it’s racy!) The book was written by a woman, it featured a woman, and its title was actually: A Woman. Arguably the book doesn’t have the literary merits of many other books I would call life-altering in some aesthetic sense. But this particular book made me aware of my gender, and of the question of feminine identity, in a way that changed my perspective on myself and the world forever. 

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Towards the end of her life, Marguerite Duras published a book called Writing, in which she describes her craft. It’s hardly a how-to – more of a series of reflections on her process. In it, she says that to write is to accept darkness, to embrace the unknown; to accept doubt. I find it horribly scary and empowering all at once. 

What book haven’t you finished?

There are many books I’ve never finished. Among them is Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee. I read most of it in one sitting over a Christmas holiday, with family around. I must have been called to help with dinner a couple of pages from the end; I never picked it up again. I can’t explain why, but I became attached to the memory of leaving the book unfinished. I find the notion of incompletion to be a rich and powerful concept in art, too; I love the way it glimmers with endless possibilities.